Nov 09

Digital Histories – A Family Tale

As Armistice Day approaches, I thought I would write a post about my own experience of digital history and why I feel that digitisation projects are so important.

It is 100 years since the start of World War 1, there are no longer any living combatants. As the years pass, there it is increasingly likely that we become distanced from the events and the people involved.

Digitised collections from national archives provide us with the opportunity to discover more about those involved in WW1 and to view them as more than just a series of names.

The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are currently undertaking a project to digitise the service records of about 640,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). The archives have already digitised about 620,000 attestation forms and 13,500 service records.

The LAC site outlines the digitisation process:

The first of the key steps to digitization involves a review of each file for its content, as some include objects such as badges or mementos. Service files may contain documents as varied as casualty or medal forms, pay books, passports, and, in some cases, personal photos and correspondence. Items that cannot be scanned will be retrieved, photographed, and placed aside so they can be reintegrated with the proper file before final storage. Staples and bindings, such as glue, must be carefully removed from each sheet of paper before being boxed alphabetically and transported for scanning at a minimum of 300 dots per inch (dpi), depending on the amount of details in the document, at a one to one ratio.

Once digitized, images will be associated to metadata (the keywords that allow users to search through an electronic databank, such as the member’s given name, last name or regimental number). The images will be compressed to a lower resolution so that searches on the Web can be performed faster, and uploaded to the CEF databank. Batches of electronic files will be made available as they are ready, with the first set expected to be added to the Soldiers of the First World War section in 2014. After digitization, the paper files will be re-boxed according to new standards designed to ensure their long-term conservation, and stored in LAC’s state-of-the-art preservation facilities in Gatineau. Thereafter, there will be limited access to the original documents.Library and Archives Canada

The purpose of the project is to allow free, public access to the records – something that currently costs C$20 per order – and to preserve the fragile originals.

The UK National Archives have digitised about 5% of their records, some in collaboration with commercial partners.

Two WW1 Soldiers 

Reginald G Eldridge (Great Uncle Rex)

Rex in Uniform

Rex in Uniform

Rex was living in Canada at the outbreak of WW1. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1914, attesting in Qubec before travelling to the UK.

Rex's Attestation Form

Rex’s Attestation Form – LAC

Rex's Attestation Form

Rex’s Attestation Form – LAC

Rex was initially based on Salisbury Plain, for training and while the Canadian military leaders organised the troops. While he was based there, my grandmother (who lived in the UK) wrote to his colonel asking whether Rex could have leave for Christmas.

Unfortunately, the request was not approved.

Rex, alongside thousands of Canadian troops, was sent to France in early 1915. He was gassed in battle, but fortunately survived, although this affected his health for the rest of his life.

William H Fegan (Grandpa)

Grandpa Pre-Military Service 1916/1917

Grandpa Pre-Military Service 1916/1917

My grandfather, like many veterans, spoke very little about his military service. Documents from the UK National Archives have revealed a lot of information, which has helped create a more complete picture.

Grandpa joined 16th (Res.) Battalion, London Regiment, Queen’s Westminster Rifles on 8th January 1917, he was 17 years and 11 months old. He spent about 2 months training before returning home to await call up.

On 1st February 1918, aged 19, he travelled from Southampton to Le Havre and was assigned to the Corps Reinforcement Camp. On 20th February 1918 he was sent to the Western Front.

On 28th March 1918 he went over the top at Arras. In no man’s land  he was blown up by a shell. On the casualty form, squeezed in above another line of writing are the words “wounded in action” and the date 29th March 1918.

When he was 88, Grandpa told my uncle:

“When I came round, I couldn’t see a soul, either British or German. There wasn’t anything moving on the landscape, so I didn’t know which way to go. I could walk, but must have gone in and out of consciousness several times. I eventually fell into a railway cutting where there was a British dressing station. They gave me a shot of something, but wanted to kill me later on, I found out, because I would not stop singing at the top of my voice.” W H Fegan

His injuries included a large hole in his side, most of his shoulder blade was shot away, as was his right elbow.

Casualty Form Page 1 - UK National Archives

Casualty Form – UK National Archives

Casualty Form - UK National Archives

Casualty Form – UK National Archives









After spending almost a year in hospital, on 18th January 1919 he was judged, under paragraph 392 (XVI) King’s Regulations, “No longer physically fit for War Service”. His entire military career had lasted 2 years 11 months, with just 69 days in active service.

Digitised collections allow anyone to access documents which, at one time, were mostly the preserve of academics and the curation staff. Being able to view these documents helps to bring historical events closer, making their participants and their lives come alive.

Lest We Forget - image by John Beniston

LEST WE FORGET – image by John Beniston

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  1. NealeRo

    Your grandfather sounded like a fascinating individual. Thanks for sharing his story! I agree with you on the importance of digital projects for commemorating and remembering the past. Do you think that removing the pay wall nature of these services (a la Ancestry.com) would be death knell for the projects – funding can be a sticky issue.

    1. SJKerr

      He was.

      The funding issue is massive. The Canadian’s have clearly put a considerable amount of money into the project with the aim of making the content freely available. Having said that, their Archives are not as large as those of the UK which go back about 1000 years, so size and age of the archive does make a considerable difference in the cost of conservation. Personally, I do find it annoying to have to pay a 3rd party to access family records, especially when you even have to pay to check if they are actually relevant. Fortunately, my uncle passed me copies of some of the records which he, or other family members paid to access – I suppose this could be seen as a form of micro-crowdsoucing.

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